Treasure trove of surprises: the Danish String Quartet delights with works from Haydn to Elvis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Danish String Quartet (Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Øland Olsen[violins], Asbørn Nørgaard [viola], Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 17.2.2023. (CSa)

Danish String Quartet at Wigmore Hall

Haydn – String Quartet, Op.20, No.3
Shostakovich – String Quartet No.7
Britten – Three Divertimenti
Nordic Folk Tunes (arr. Danish String Quartet)

‘There is no theme in this concert. We are against the mainstream of classical programming.’ declared Asbørn Nørgard, the Danish Quartet’s violist, before adding that all the featured works were ‘full of surprises.’ That said, the group’s decision to combine the distinctly different voices of Haydn, Shostakovich, and Britten, in the first half of their concert, with a dazzling selection of folk music in the second, was insightful, intelligent, and made for a cohesive and refreshingly original evening of music-making. Some 14 years have passed since the group of tousle-haired, bearded instrumentalists took First Prize in the Wigmore Hall’s annual 11th London International String Quartet Competition. Since then, it has established itself as one of the most exceptional international ensembles playing today. Impeccable, highly disciplined and dynamic musicianship come with a relaxed, platform presence which communicates to audiences of all ages the joy, excitement, sadness and humour of chamber music.

The Danes marked their return to the hall with a recital of Haydn’s all-too-rarely performed String Quartet in G minor Op.20, No.3, a work which represented the 40-year-old composer at his most exuberant. Written in 1772, Haydn was leading a secluded existence in Hungary as Kapellmeister to Count Nikolaus Esterhásy. ‘No one was nearby who could distract or confuse me about myself’, the composer recalled. ‘In that way, I became original.’  As it turned out, Opus 20 in G was one of a series of six quartets whose ground-breaking originality earned Haydn the nickname ‘Father of the String Quartet’. The high-spirited opening Allegro, with its startling broken rhythms, dramatic pauses, and playful pizzicato were incisively played, while the wistful Minuet displayed the Quartet’s gorgeous richness of tone. After a poignant account of the third movement, an Adagio of hymn-like solemnity and surging emotion, cheery good humour was deftly restored in the roistering, helter-skelter Finale.

There was a stark contrast of mood, tone and texture and almost a century between Haydn’s mischievous revelry and the tentative, desolate and occasional brutal sound world of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.7. Yet both works oscillate unnervingly between fierce passion and playfulness. So, while Shostakovich’s quartet yielded up a very different set of surprises from those offered by Haydn’s, the decision to pair the two in the same programme was both logical and illuminating, and the transition from one to the other proved seamless.

The Shostakovich quartet marked the death, in 1960, of his first wife Nina, to whom it was dedicated. It is amongst the composer’s shortest chamber works. Its three closely knit movements last little more than 12 minutes. A timorous, almost diffident Allegretto leads to a ghostly slow movement, brilliantly focused in this performance, in which the players were rarely required to play in unison. The third movement, a frenzied fugue played with exceptional vigour, was followed by a curious lilting waltz-like fragment of memory, Nina’s ghost perhaps.

Shostakovich’s good friend and admirer, Benjamin Britten came next. Exhilarating and whimsical, Britten’s Divertimenti for string quartet, with its spiky, irregular opening March, sunny and seemingly untroubled Waltz, and ecstatic Burlesque, were played with great elegance and finesse, and made a coherent choice with which to end the first half of the concert. It also provided the appropriate segue into the second half, billed simply as ‘A selection of folk music’, in which the quartet’s Danish homeland, Sweden, Scotland and Ireland were all represented. The geographically broad selection also demonstrated the deep connection between folk tunes and the classical tradition. Sweet, melodious and mystical ballads were punctuated by catchy jigs making the desire to dance and clap almost irrepressible. Included in this treasure trove of surprises was an offering from the Faroe Islands – a magical account of Regin, the Blacksmith – followed by a jaunty whistling rendition of As I Walked Out. The dark and mysterious Norwegian lullaby Nör Mitt Øy contrasted beautifully with the group’s arrangement of Marie Louise, based on a selection of English dances popular in Scandinavia. The encore was a heartfelt serenade, Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. Its sentiment was clearly reciprocated by the surprised and wildly cheering audience.

Chris Sallon

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